The Leadership Paradox for a Global Future

How can you take the lead when you’re not sure where you’re going? Rewiring your brain for the future.

The future is coming, whether you want it or not, and we will all need to adapt and change.  Your current job may look very different to now, or more likely, not even exist in the future. 

But that doesn’t mean you need to put your head in your hands and let stress hormones cause you to fight, flee, freeze or flock. The Korn-Ferry ‘Future of Work’ report suggests by 2030 there will be a talent deficit of 85.2 million workers, so you’re going to be wanted. Those people with the right skills will perform better and adapt fastest. But here’s the challenge: According to a report from the Institute For The Future (IFTF) and a panel of 20 tech, business and academic experts from around the world, 85 per cent of the jobs that will exist in 2030 haven’t even been invented yet. There’s a term for the challenge we face – VUCA. It stands for Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous.

How do you prepare for a future that is VUCA? A good place to begin is how the human brain learns. 

Looking at the future 

While still in its infancy today, by 2030 we can expect the science of learning, founded on cognitive neuroscience and many other disciplines, to be more advanced and more targeted, giving us a new set of tools to inspire and inform the workforce of the future. Scientists are already working on new ways to maximize the power of the brain to change behaviour, learn new skills, form new connections and envision new ideas. Some of the tools you may be using in 2030 include: 

  • Implants that form a direct brain-to-computer interface, allowing near real-time access to digital information 
  • Ingestible “knowledge pills” that alter brain chemistry to accelerate processing or improve performance 
  • Optogenetic devices to turn genes on or off by shining different frequencies of light onto the brain, changing the way neurons perform 
  • Widespread practice of meditation and mindfulness so people handle stress, make decisions, and work together in harmony much better than today 
  • “Co-workers” who are artificial intelligences (AIs) working side-by-side with humans 
  • A greater commitment to lifelong learning and a greater acceptance of neuroscience applications in the workplace. 

Learning to perform, again and again and again … 

Challenges for the future will include faster technology transformation, working with more people from diverse cultures, including robots, and regular revolutions in ways of working. This means we’re going to have to learn more, learn faster and to repeat the process more often.  
Fortunately, your brain is a neuroplastic learning machine. It has the ability to adapt and learn but not everyone knows how to access that ability.  Learning activities are still firmly rooted in the days of medieval monks; people sit in classrooms, or perhaps use videos or podcasts, to listen to experts talking to them. This method has served us for years and works to a degree, eventually, for some people. But it’s not effective, or sufficient, and simply doesn’t work for many other people.   
Currently there’s a focus on self-directed or self-determined learning, partly based on the idea that all the knowledge you need is already there. But how do you find the good stuff? And when you’ve got it what do you do with it? Tons of content isn’t sufficient for evolutionary learning and neither is simply being left to muddle along and ‘learn on the job’.   
There’s a wealth of evidence from science identifying effective and engaging ways to learn more easily. Some of these include: 

  • Learning happens in the entire body, not just the brain. 
  • Learning takes time, effort, focused practice and feedback. 
  • Recall is “stickier” than recognition.  
  • Contextual learning is more memorable and more easily translated to the workplace.  
  • Spaced reviewing increases retention. 
  • Reflection allows the integration of new learning with existing knowledge. 
  • Sleep is our learning “super-power.”  
  • There are important differences between learning skills and knowledge. 

People who recognize these brain-based learning principles and who have tools and techniques to learn well, even from poor materials or insufficient support, are going to be ahead of the game. Give people the skills of learning before they are overwhelmed with everything they must learn to survive the future.   
Leading us into the future  
In our quick changing VUCA world we are in an environment where we need to use all the available potential in our organisations. But our brains are wired to mistrust change, which is why so many leaders and their colleagues are not comfortable with leading in times of great disruption. To face the demands that change brings, leaders need to encourage, inspire and influence people to achieve their potential and maximize their talents.   
Our L&D departments are also changing as well. There is a shift from formal learning to informal learning and more emphasis on digital learning. Our L&D leaders need to be aware of all the potential that is available; breaking out of their biases and patterns is vital to discover, identify and capitalise on latent capability.  
To develop talent for the future, leaders have to listen, persuade and encourage employees to take on new challenges. Developing a learning and growth mindset should be leaders’ number one priority.   
Last but not least, leaders will have an even stronger need to retain talent. Two target groups are important: Millennials, how do we engage them, challenge them and give them responsibility? And: Older employees who may be looking for different experiences but still require support, challenge and motivation.  

To meet the uncertain future, we need the contributions of everyone. The biggest challenge may be how to engage and inspire a diverse workforce. 
Neuroscience helps us to understand the potential of all target groups. We want leaders who take responsibility for learning. understand themselves and how to get the most from all our brains at work to stay focused and successful in the VUCA world.  
The leadership paradox  
Our brain is a novelty-seeking machine which is valuable for the future that’s coming. Anything that’s new, different or unusual is bound to catch our eye. That is because when we pick up something new, we see it has a potential for rewarding us in some way.  So essentially, this reward mechanism makes us crave change.

It is key for leaders to tap into this reward mechanism so employees can draw on their own strengths and insights in the future. However, in order for this mechanism to manifest we need to feel psychologically safe. We need to know we can try new things and fail. We need to know someone ‘has our back’ when we are underperforming. 

For a state of true engagement, we need to be willing to test difficult things, take risks, take our time to think deeply about problems and develop new solutions while feeling safe. This reward and safety mechanism requires ‘paradoxical leadership’: the ability to steer behaviour and ‘have their back’ on the one hand and the ability to completely trust and ‘let go’ on the other. To balance these paradoxical behaviours, we must first understand where they come from before we can take the right actions to tap into this reward and safety response. This is another vital skill and knowledge area for our leaders of the future.  
How can you take the lead when you’re not sure where you’re going? 
Before you can develop other leaders, you must become a leader yourself, prepared to show the way to a new way of working. That’s why The Brain Ladies, Ria Van Dinteren, Katelijn Nijsmans, Stella Collins, and Margie Meacham, have banded together to bring the promise of practical neuroscience, so you’ll be ready for the VUCA world ahead and beyond.

They will share their insights at a panel discussion at OEB and, in addition, have put together a series of online, blended workshops digging deeper into these exciting trends and offering practical tips for bringing neuroscience into your daily practice as learning professional. 


  • Significant insights from learning science that you can implement today to enhance retention and improve performance 
  • Amygdala hacks that helps you overcome your “lizard brain” so you can embrace the changes ahead 
  • Recognize and counteract unconscious bias in your actions toward others 
  • Become a brain-aware leader and help people feel safe so that they can follow you 
  • Build a set of tools you can use to survive and thrive in the VUCA world of today and tomorrow 

Written by,
Margie Meacham
Ria Van Dinteren
Katelijn Nijsmans
Stella Collins

The Brainladies will be speaking in the session Beyond Neuro-Hypes. Brain-based Learning Solutions to Drive Performance taking place on Thursday, Nov 28  from 12:00–13:30

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